Top two NBL teams the Sydney Kings and Cairns Taipans combined for three losses in Round 16, Melbourne United and South East Melbourne Phoenix kept winning but suffered cruel blows, and an Adelaide 36ers who promised so much fell off a cliff.
It was the third last round of NBL23 and the race for the top six positions is down to seven with the Adelaide 36ers having lost five straight after a season that promised so much when they made history in the pre-season beating the NBA’s Phoenix Suns.
The Brisbane Bullets are finishing the season in some encouraging form having won three straight matches, but all the attention is on the seven teams still in the playoff hunt with two rounds remaining.
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This time last week, the Sydney Kings and Cairns Taipans looked unstoppable in the top two spots. They still look solid in those positions, but the Snakes lost on Friday night with the return of Keanu Pinder and the Kings lost twice inside three days after winning six straight.
South East Melbourne and Melbourne continue to trade over that sixth position with both the Phoenix and United winning impressively in Round 16. However, both could have lost a key player for the run home in the form of the Phoenix’s Ryan Broekhoff and United’s Shea Ili.
Round 16 began back on Wednesday with the South East Melbourne Phoenix beating the Tasmania JackJumpers 86-75.
There was then four straight days of double-headers beginning on Thursday with the Illawarra Hawks delivering a stunning 78-76 road win over the New Zealand Breakers with a half-court game winner from Tyler Harvey.
The Brisbane Bullets then delivered a dagger blow to the Adelaide 36ers with the 106-101 win in Brisbane.
That led into a monster Friday night beginning with the Tasmania JackJumpers hitting back to beat the Cairns Taipans 85-77 despite the return for the Snakes of superstar Keanu Pinder.
Second up on Friday was the Perth Wildcats making a statement in the fastest paced NBL game of the season beating the Sydney Kings 111-104.
That led into Saturday with the Brisbane Bullets making it three straight beating the Illawarra Hawks 103-86 before Melbourne United defeated the Adelaide 36ers 94-87.
There was two more matches on Sunday with the South East Melbourne Phoenix returning to sixth spot beating the Perth Wildcats 112-91 before the New Zealand Breakers snapped a four-game losing slide defeating the Sydney Kings 93-88.
PHOENIX, UNITED KEEP WINNING BUT CONCERN OVER STARS
It was a mixed bag of a Round 16 for South East Melbourne Phoenix and Melbourne United. Both teams continued to win as they fight over a playoff spot but now there’s genuine concerns over the immediate futures of key duo Shea Ili and Ryan Broekhoff.
Melbourne’s season looked dead and buried after 15 games when they were sitting with a 5-10 record. Up to that point, inspirational point guard Ili had only played three matches and his absence was sorely felt.
It has been no coincidence that their resurgence this season has been with his return after battling a string of concussions with some concerning on-going symptoms.
However, he was able to shake it off and United’s form rapidly improved along with it to the point where they have now won nine of their last 11 games following Saturday’s win in Adelaide over the 36ers.
Ili has teamed up with Chris Goulding, Xavier Rathan-Mayes and Rayjon Tucker in the United backcourt, and it has been tremendous form Melbourne has been showing including a current five-game streak.
The only downside of Saturday’s win was when Ili suffered another knock to his head. That ended his night early and now there’s genuine concern over his immediate playing future.
His United captain and teammate Chris Goulding is just hoping Ili is OK before worrying further.
“There’s concern for him obviously, just knowing the recent history and the severity of this space that we’re finding out more and more out about it,” Goulding said.
“There’s concern for him as a person for him first and foremost, and we’ll worry about what that means for our team later. The immediate pressing matter is that he’s OK and that his family is OK. That’s what we’ll focus on first and foremost.”
Then there is Broekhoff with the Phoenix. South East Melbourne suffered a shock loss to Brisbane last Monday night, but have since bounced back with tremendous wins over Tasmania and Perth to return to sixth spot with a 14-12 record.
Broekhoff, the former NBA and Boomers gun shooter, was key to that too especially with six three-pointers and 22 points in the first half on Sunday against the Wildcats.
It was his fifth game back after a unique hip/groin injury and he was just warming up with the season-best performance when late in the game he appeared to suffer a similar injury.
The emotion was written all over his face, but he remained the ultimate teammate to allow the Phoenix to enjoy the big win. But afterwards, coach Simon Mitchell couldn’t help but be devastated for his co-captain.
“I’m not expecting great results but we’ll know more after he has scans,” Mitchell said.
“It’s horrible, the guy just can’t take a trick but it’s professional sports and we’re just hoping for the best. Hopefully it’s nothing too bad but history has given us a lesson that it’s probably going to not be good news for us or Rowdy.
“He’s just the perfect teammate with everything that he does for us and that’s what we miss when he’s not out there so here’s hoping we get some good news.”
WHO CARES ABOUT MY MINUTES, JUST LET ME LEAD A WINNING TEAM
Clint Steindl has won championships and played nearly 300 games in the NBL now so he’s well past the point of stressing about his own playing time — as long as he’s doing what he can to be a leader on a successful team.
Ever since Steindl arrived in the NBL with the Cairns Taipans following his standout college career at Saint Mary’s he’s become accustomed to playing key roles on his teams, including as that quick scoring threat off the bench in two championships with the Perth Wildcats.
He is now in his second season as captain at the Tasmania JackJumpers but personally it has been a campaign that has never really got going.
He missed the first 10 games through injury and just hasn’t been able to really find his groove since, averaging just 14.3 minutes a game for 4.4 points and 1.4 rebounds on shooting just 27 per cent from three-point range.
Across his 285-game career, Steindl has averaged 17.7 minutes for 7.6 points and 2.2 rebounds while going at 37.2 per cent from beyond the arc.
His minutes being down is easy to explain. Development player Sean Macdonald is simply outplaying him in that backup two/three man position behind Milton Doyle while Matt Kenyon, Isaac White, Sam McDaniel and Jarrad Weeks are deserving of minutes too.
It would be easy for Steindl to sulk especially in a game like against the Illawarra Hawks back on January 10 when he didn’t hit the floor at all, but that’s the last thing he’s worried about.
At 33 years of age, as a father of two and a husband, and the captain of the JackJumpers, Steindl just wants to be the best leader that he can be for the team and to help all his teammates reach their potential.
If that means he has to come out and play 30 minutes and jack up 10 three-pointers or if it means he doesn’t get on the court at all, it takes a backseat to doing what’s best for the group.
That’s why Steindl is the captain and it fits ideally with the culture the JackJumpers have built where they compete and fight as a unit, and that’s why again in their second season they sit in fourth position with a 14-10 record.
The JackJumpers have four games to go over the last two rounds of the season which will determine where they finish, but for Steindl all he will continue to worry about is setting the right example and being the best leader he can.
“That’s an easy one, you’ve got to get out of your own head and realise it’s not about me,” Steindl said.
“It’s about the guys around me and I would love to be out there more, and to be shooting the ball well and contributing and being effective and efficient.
“It’s not always going to go your way and we’ve got some guys who are playing well and Isaac White was playing extremely well, but Sean Macdonald has been a heck of a player for us all year and he’s getting a lot of minutes. He’s being rewarded because he has been really good for us.
“A lot of my focus is on trying to complement those guys, instilling confidence in them to keep doing what they’re doing and as a senior leader on this team, I can’t let that affect me whatsoever.
“I’ve got to keep investing in these guys and I’m going to keep doing that while we’re playing this year.”
EX-NBA GUN LEARNING TO BE A LEADER IN THE NBL
Tyler Johnson built a career for himself in the NBA as a scorer for hire and became mighty good at it, but one thing he never had to do was be a leader and that’s something he has had to learn in the NBL, and is embracing at the Brisbane Bullets.
Across his 376-game NBA career that started at the Miami Heat in 2014/15 and last saw him play with the San Antonio Spurs in 2021/22, Johnson had no trouble being a player coming off the bench, knowing his role and putting up quick points.
He only started 85 of those games, but played some big minutes including as much as 31.2 a game for the Phoenix Suns in 2018/19. Along the way he had seasons averaging 13.7, 12.0, 11.7, 11.1, 10.9 and 10.8 points.
Across those 376 games, he averaged 9.6 points a game while shooting the three ball at 34.2 per cent so there was never any question marks over his credentials and ability when joining the Bullets for his first NBL season.
And at just 30 years of age, Johnson was still ready and able to have a significant impact, but even he might have underestimated the adjustments he would have to make in terms of playing in the NBL compared with the NBA, and then his different role.
Throughout his entire NBA career, Johnson was just allowed to go about his business and make sure he was doing everything right to contribute to his team, but all of a sudden on the other side of the world he needed to learn to be a leader.
It was something new to Johnson and something he’d never really experienced since being in college at Fresno State. The first step in being able to become that leader is caring enough to do it, and being willing to put the team first.
That has never been a problem with Johnson. Despite having good reason to come to the NBL with an ego, there’s been no sign of that with Johnson.
He has come in and been humble with the Bullets, hasn’t let any of their off-court dramas get him down and most importantly, he has shown genuine care and passion.
That’s why when things were falling apart, Johnson was playing at a high level including 32 points in a horror loss to the Cairns Taipans. Now that the team is playing better, he’s at the forefront.
The Bullets scored two more terrific wins in Round 16 at home to the Adelaide 36ers on Thursday and away to the Illawarra Hawks on Saturday, and across them Johnson delivered 50 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.
More importantly, he has shown leadership to fit in with the veterans on the team like Aron Baynes, Nathan Sobey and Jason Cadee, and is being a leader for emerging players like DJ Mitchell, Tanner Krebs, Gorjok Gak, Tyrell Harrison and Kody Stattmann.
Johnson admits the adjustments was more significant than he expected, but now by the end of the season he has loved the challenge and wouldn’t mind staying in the NBL longer.
“I don’t think that in my NBA career I really ever had to be a leader, I had to be held accountable and do things the right way and come in and do my job,” Johnson said.
“But I as far as being vocal and setting an example with my words and habit, outside of playing hard and doing the right things for myself to help the club, I never to be a leader. Now I’m in a position where I have to be more of a mentor and leader.
“I had to really think about it and this is one of the first times in my basketball career outside of college, so that’s eight, nine years ago, that I’ve had to have this responsibility.
“So for me it did take a little bit of soul searching and self check to be able to do that because you can’t just come in and worry about yourself and getting yourself right for games. When you have young guys, you need them to help you and you need to help them learn how to help themselves.
“It’s been a very humbling process and I obviously wish we figured this thing out a little bit sooner, but at the same time, I’d rather have these conversations now as far as guys coming together and making those steps to help their careers as opposed to not having them at all.”
36ERS CRUMBLING NOT BAD NEWS TO SOME
An unceremoniously dumped head coach and star import of the Adelaide 36ers are letting it known they feel a little vindication that the Sixers have crumbled to fall out of the playoff race.
The 36ers promised so much this season with one of the league’s all-time great winning players, six-time champion CJ Bruton coming into his second year in charge and this time, having put together the squad he wanted.
He wanted to become a lot more athletic, he wanted players who could play at a faster style and in general, just to get a lot more talented which led to the signing of imports Antonius Cleveland, Robert Franks and Craig Randall.
The Randall story is well told and that didn’t work out, but his replacement is an NBA and NBL champion in Ian Clark so they hardly lost anything in terms of talent and credentials.
With a strong contingent of local talent too made up of Mitch McCarron, Daniel Johnson, Sunday Dech, Anthony Drmic and young stars Kai Sotto and Kyrin Galloway, it was a 36ers team not lacking in talent.
They then stunned the basketball world by beating the Phoenix Suns in the pre-season and many saw them as championship favourites.
However, right from the very first game of the NBL season where they lost at home to the Tasmania JackJumpers by 25 points, something just has never felt right about the group.
The chemistry is off, the defence has been terrible and has shown no signs of improving, and really, it appears a playing group unwilling to sacrifice for one another and to get fully on the same page.
Randall was initially made the scapegoat, but things have never really improved since and the 36ers have lost their past five matches and at 11-14 with three games to go, playoffs are out of reach.
That means for a proud franchise with four championships like the 36ers, they are setting a franchise record for a fifth straight season of missing post-season action and there’s a distinct lack of sympathy for them on a number of fronts.
The Sixers came into this season talking up their championship prospects so now that they’ve failed in that quest, there’s not too many around the league feeling sorry for them.
Then there’s those who feel wronged by the 36ers in recent years.
You can go back to former captain Mitch Creek who vowed to never return to the 36ers after they tried to derail his NBA dream. Jack McVeigh and Keanu Pinder have been let go willingly and now gone on to be star performers on championship contending teams.
Then there is Randall. He has felt slighted by the 36ers from the moment the club decided to let him go after he had put up 20.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists in his six games in his first NBL season.
Randall was lambasted for his attitude and lack of ability to be part of the team, but he’s now sitting back and taking satisfaction in the 36ers crumble without him.
“The truth is coming out if you really paying attention,” Randall tweeted.
“I heard them 12 jerseys still selling in Adelaide
“Y’all starting to see it now huh?”
Then there is former head coach Conner Henry. After one season in charge, Henry helped put together the squad last season that Bruton ended up coaching before being unceremoniously dumped.
Henry has happily remained in Adelaide collecting his pay cheque from his payout and without saying much, said plenty following Saturday night’s home loss to Melbourne in front of another record Adelaide Entertainment Centre crowd.
Henry tweeted 36 laughing emojis with the wide eyes, before later deleting the post.
Meanwhile, now that playoffs are out of reach of the 36ers for a fifth straight season, coach Bruton at least wants to finish with a winning record.
“Well having a positive record would be the best thing we can aim for now,” Bruton said.
“Last year when I got here we didn’t have a positive record in the first season and this year we’ve got more depth on the team.
“We retooled the roster and winning the next game so that we can be in a position to go and be in the positive and not in the negative, and show that we’ve made some strides is our focus.”
DYNAMIC TRIO COULD TAKE UNITED A LONG WAY
The backcourt trio for Melbourne United of Chris Goulding, Xavier Rathan-Mayes and Rayjon Tucker showed again in Adelaide on Saturday just what they are capable of. They could give United a real crack at the championship, but they are back outside of the top six looking in.
Melbourne might still have been in too big of a hole to climb out of to reach the playoffs this NBL season having lost 10 of the first 15 matches, but there’s little question right now they are playing well enough to do some serious damage.
After being 5-10, Melbourne has now won nine of 11 matches with the only two losses in that period being against Perth where they were up eight with 45 seconds to go and then on Christmas Day to the Sydney Kings.
Aside from that, United have been outstanding including winning five in-a-row but even still with two rounds to go they are outside of the top six and a playoff position with a 14-12 record.
All Melbourne can do is focus on beating the New Zealand Breakers in Auckland this Saturday and then at home to the Adelaide 36ers the following Sunday.
The thing to admire about United is that they have been dealt blows even back to the pre-season. They weren’t expecting to lose Matthew Dellavedova and Jack White to the NBA, but it happened.
They then lost German powerhouse Ariel Hukporti who was locked in to be the starting centre and couldn’t be replaced because as a Next Star he didn’t take up a roster spot.
Shea Ili was then out for the 12 of the first 15 games with concussion symptoms, and might now be out again for the rest of the season with Isaac Humphries, David Barlow and Mason Peatling all missing significant time too.
The three constants on this United team has been the presence of Goulding, Rathan-Mayes and Tucker in the backcourt.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Tucker took a while to find out how he could be successful in the NBL, Rathan-Mayes has had to adjust to different roles, and Goulding hasn’t always been involved enough.
However, they have now figured it out and it was fully on show once again in Adelaide on Saturday night.
Goulding lit it up in the first quarter with 13 points and then caught fire again in the third period, Rathan-Mayes knocked down six three-pointers in the second half and Tucker put up 25 points and 10 rebounds for the night.
His combination now of being aggressive taking it to the rack and being an effective three-point shooter has turned him into the weapon he talked about being before the season.
That trio combined for 73 of their team’s 94 points in the win over the Sixers while shooting a combined 28/42 from the field and 15/29 from three-point territory.
It was a spectacular three man performance. While they will need help in the last two games especially with Ili likely sidelined, it’s a combination that nobody would like to come up against should they sneak into the top six.
“When shots are falling and the scoreboard’s ticking over, it’s great fun,” Goulding said.
“They’re a little bit more extroverted than me at times, sometimes with their celebrations I’m often running around trying to flick the switch back to the defensive assignment. But we want these guys to be confident and to be playing free, and to be themselves and that’s what they are.
“They are extroverts, they are showmen and when they get it going like they did in this game, we want them to express themselves and be in a space where they are most confident and comfortable because that’s when we are as well as a team.”